February 1, 2023

This Should Perk You Up: The Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee

A moderate amount of coffee can lower your risk for several chronic diseases

Person pouring coffee in kitchen from a French press.

Some days (most days, honestly) coffee can feel like the glue that’s holding it all together. It turns you from zombie to human in the morning. It gives you a nice afternoon pick-me-up. And keeps you moving all those hours in between.

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But — deep breath — is coffee good for you?

You can exhale.

Coffee, it turns out, packs some surprising health benefits.

“There aren’t a lot of downsides to drinking moderate amounts of coffee — and in fact, it can have positive effects on your health,” says registered dietitian Devon Peart, RD, MHSc, BASc.

You probably don’t need another reason to pour yourself a fresh cup. But just in case, keep reading. (Go ahead and refresh your mug first if you’d like. We can wait a minute…)

Is coffee good for you?

Peart says that altogether, the various ingredients in coffee add up to a drink that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And while how much coffee you drink and how you take it will make a difference in its health benefits, there are several ways your cup of joe can do your body good.

Caffeine’s positive side

Coffee gets its kick from caffeine, a natural stimulant that makes you feel more energetic.

Caffeine can get a bad rap, but it turns out the caffeine in coffee does more than just wake you up.

It acts on your brain to improve memory, mood, reaction times and mental function. One study even says caffeine can improve endurance and performance during exercise.

Nutrients

“Coffee contains about a thousand different botanical compounds,” Peart says. Scientists haven’t studied all of them well, but the news so far gets two thumbs up.

Coffee comes from beans, after all. And as Peart points out, “dietitians love beans.”

Coffee is a source of nutrients, including B vitamins, potassium and riboflavin.

Phenolic compounds

Coffee beans are also rich in antioxidants, which are compounds that protect cells against damage.

But there’s more to it than that, Peart says, “The latest research is showing that it’s not the antioxidants per se that make coffee, in moderation, beneficial. It’s actually the phenolic compounds.”

Phenolic compounds, or phenols, are substances found in plant foods that play a key role in your body’s defense systems, protecting it from oxidative stress, as well as inflammation.

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“Coffee is made from beans, a plant food. Research is showing that the phenolic components in coffee provide health-promoting effects similar to those in vegetables or fruits” Peart adds.

Lowered risk for diabetes

Multiple studies have shown that regular coffee consumption lowers the odds of developing Type 2 diabetes. That’s true for decaf, as well as the high-octane variety.

Prevent neurologic disease

Regular daily caffeine intake — like the kind you get from your daily cuppa — is linked to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as Parkinson’s disease.

Liver benefits

Coffee has been shown to be a positive for your liver health. It can help protect against liver cirrhosis in people at risk of the disease, such as those with alcohol use disorder or fatty liver disease.

Lower cancer risk

Researchers have found that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of liver cancer and colorectal cancer — two of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the world.

Ward off depression

That pick-me-up you get from a foamy cappuccino may not be a figment of your imagination. Several studies have found that the more coffee a person drinks, the lower their risk of depression.

Are there risks associated with coffee?

Coffee may be a healthy little bean, but it isn’t an all-out magical one. To get more pros and fewer cons, Peart suggests following some guidelines.

Don’t go overboard

Excessive caffeine can cause dehydration. But it’s worth noting that a moderate amount of coffee isn’t dehydrating, contrary to popular opinion.

“At modest levels of intake, coffee is a net positive in terms of hydration, meaning it still contributes to your fluid needs,” Peart states.

Some people may find caffeine makes them jittery or anxious. And too much caffeine can also interfere with a good night’s sleep, especially if you drink it late in the day.

Coffee can also impact blood pressure. Whether it will depends on the amount you drink and on your genetic makeup. Peart says people are genetically predisposed to be slow or fast metabolizers of caffeine, and slow metabolizers may experience negative effects, such as elevated blood pressure, even at low levels of intake.

For the general population, experts recommend sticking to less than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. An 8-ounce cup of coffee typically has 80 to 100 mg of caffeine. So, aim for about three to four cups a day, max.

Cut back if you’re expecting

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s safe for pregnant people to take in up to 200 mg of caffeine per day, or about two small cups. The jury is still out on whether higher caffeine intake poses a risk.

Skip coffee late in the day

Caffeine in coffee can stay in your system for several hours after your last sip. So a late-afternoon latte or post-dinner café au lait may leave you tossing and turning at night. And sleep deprivation is nothing to mess with. To play it safe, stick to decaf in the evening.

Choose wisely

Coffee — particularly the concoctions you get at a coffee shop — can go hand-in-hand with additions that aren’t so nutritious. (Think sweet flavored syrups, sugar, whipped cream and the like.) Some coffee drinks are often notorious for empty calories. And some of them are really less like coffee and more akin to coffee-flavored milkshakes.

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If you enjoy coffee drinks, the safest way to go is to ask for sugar-free syrups and no whip with nonfat milk.

“Coffee may be healthy, but what you add to it often isn’t,” Peart cautions. Keep an eye on the sugar and saturated fat, especially if you’re drinking multiple mugs a day.

Peart offers these suggestions to get the most health benefits from your coffee, without the additions:

Aim for natural sweeteners

There are big differences in the health implications for various sweeteners.

If you prefer artificial sweeteners, like sucralose (Splenda®) saccharin (Sweet’N Low®) and aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®), Peart suggests slowly weaning yourself from them and opting for more natural sugars.

“Over time, research shows that artificial sweeteners can train your brain to want very sweet things,” she continues. “So, it can be a tough transition to make, but it can be a major win for your health to let go of artificial sweeteners.”

If you take your coffee with regular sugar but want to avoid unnecessary calories, try switching to a small amount of honey, agave or even Stevia™. Stevia comes from a leaf and is a slightly more natural source than a typical artificial sweetener.

Spice it up

Spices aren’t just a great way to add flavor to coffee, but they can also provide surprising health benefits.

  • Cinnamon stabilizes blood sugar, helps improve LDL (bad) cholesterol and is a good source of vitamin K and iron.
  • Nutmeg is a very good source of manganese.
  • Cardamom is a good source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc. It’s also a good source of dietary fiber, iron and manganese.
  • Cocoa powder is a good source of protein, potassium and zinc, as well as a good source of dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese. But it’s also high in saturated fat, so use it sparingly. And go for the unsweetened kind.

Be careful with milk

You might wonder if it’s really a big deal to use whole milk in your coffee if it’s only a few tablespoons?

Yes, it undoubtedly matters, says Peart. “Those are empty, unnecessary calories that add up.”

Let’s do some math. If you used two tablespoons of whole milk in four cups of coffee per day, that’s the equivalent of a half a cup of whole milk, which is 75 calories. Over a year, that would mean you’re taking in an extra 27,000 calories. (For perspective, that’s about how many calories most people should consume over the course of two weeks.)

If you want a healthier alternative for whitening up your coffee, try 1% or nonfat cow’s milk. You can also go with low-fat soy, almond or rice milk, which are all good alternatives, but are lower in protein than cow’s milk.

So, yes, go on and enjoy that morning coffee with the confidence that you’re doing a good thing for your body. Just don’t go overboard.

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